Privateering key to winning Revolutionary War, created the complex business

Michael Raffety

July 2, 2010

Since I’m usually occupied during the school year, taking language courses or accounting courses, I don’t get much extra reading done until summer. When I picked up a book a couple of weeks ago that my daughter had given me at Christmas I was surprised to see the author was a grandson of WWII Gen. George S. Patton.

The book is called Patriot Pirates by Robert H. Patton. I met his cousin George Patton Waters two years ago when my friend Eric Petersen got married in El Dorado Hills. How I came to know Eric is when he brought in a National Geographic article in 1987 that said the Soviets liberated Plzen, Czechoslovakia. Eric was darned mad. He was a tank driver in Patton’s 16th Armored Division, which had liberated Plzen and western Bohemia May 3, 1945 when Eisenhower ordered Patton’s Third Army to halt outside Prague. He was there. He knew who liberated Plzen. The town and the Army made a plaque commemorating the U.S. Army’s liberation of Plzen from the Germans. The Soviets later hid that plaque.

Eric, who was a professional photographer and showed my photography students at the college how to do retouching, persisted in his campaign about the truth of who liberated Plzen. Eventually we had a great photographic spread in our paper of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Plzen. Eric hasn’t missed an annual celebration since, most recently attending the 65th anniversary. Furthermore, his enthusiasm seems to accumulate friends who join him for his annual May trek to Plzen. The town goes all out on celebrating its liberation in 1945, with everyone dressing up in period costumes and doing reenactments like this country does Civil War reenactments.

Among the friends that Eric swept up into his joyous liberation visits is George Patton Waters. Waters didn’t join the Army. He served five years in the Navy on a destroyer off the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. Then he started a real estate investment company that he operates in Louisiana. He also serves on board of the Medal of Honor Foundation, which recently issued a book telling the story of 139 living and recently deceased Medal of Honor winners, with an introduction by President George W. Bush and essays by Tom Brokow and Sen. John McCain.

His cousin Robert broke the family tradition and didn’t serve in the military. He became a novelist, then switching to nonfiction with a book in 1994 about the Patton family that relied extensively on letters and diaries held by the Patton family. The history includes service in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II and the Vietnam War.

Robert Brown graduated from Brown University, named after one of the wealthy merchant families of Rhode Island that made its fortune as privateers in the Revolutionary War and later one of the Browns padded his fortune by participating in the Triangle Trade, bringing slaves to the Caribbean, then molasses to New England, where it was made into rum, and then sailing back to Africa to complete the “triangle.”

The real core of the book, Patriot Pirate, the Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution, is how the privateers kept the Revolution alive by capturing British merchant ships and seizing their cargo. The secondary key story is how this began as merchants taking a risk to fund these ships and eventually the financial backing got split up into smaller parts, becoming the rudiments of the American corporation. Also the risk was spread through insurance, from the ship to the sailor. Sailors sold discounted shares of their potential prize money as a form of prepaid insurance for their families. Ordinary seamen could make several years worth of income from one ship seizure.

Eventually a business agent of Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris set himself up on the French Island of Martinique and issued privateer letters of marque that were used by ships in the Caribbean to capture British merchant ships in the area from there to the Bahamas. They were hauled into Martinique and divvied up among the crew, with the balance going to the agent, who in turn bought powder for shipment to Gen. Washington’s army.

The powder was originally purchased by the Continental Congress’ Secret Committee. Through deals brokered by merchants who used Congress’ money to ship commodities such as timber, tobacco and grain to barter for gunpowder, cannons and arms. The merchants received commissions at each step of the process. If a ship was lost at sea or seized by the British, Congress lost the money advanced the merchant. Ships that did return with munitions and arms also carried dry goods like table linen and furniture. Government contracting could be lucrative but was also risky.

The risks included capture by a British man o’ war. Eight weeks after the Battle of Lexington and Concord two British ships tried to bully a Maine town out of some lumber. They were met with a pitchfork brigade. Then 31-year-old Jeremiah O’Brien led a group that rowed out and captured the two British ships, using one to ram the other. Massachusetts awarded him one of the ships, which he used to hunt supply ships between Boston and Nova Scotia. He was captured one ship, then took a privateer commission in Massachusetts, sailing off to the West Indies, where his ship was captured in July. He was taken to England and put on a prison ship and then transferred to a British prison. He escaped two years later, rowed across the English Channel and hopped a French ship back to America just as the war ended. In 1943 the shipyard at Portland, Maine, launched a liberty ship named after him. The USS Jeremiah O’Brien is open for daily tours at San Francisco’s Pier 45 and goes out on occasional tours around the bay.

Massachusetts officially passed a privateering act and set up prize courts to divide up the booty. Congress followed with its own proclamation that all British ships were subject to seizure. The British admiral in the West Indies asked for more ships, but was told his one ship was enough. Meanwhile more than 100 new England privateers were headed his way.

As one measure of the money to be made in privateering, Patton wrote, “… 41 prizes brought into Providence, R.I., between April and November 1776 were appraised in excess of 300,000 British pounds, a value ‘double the property of the whole town two years ago,’ and the Browns were the biggest beneficiary.”

At the time it was estimated 10,000 New Englanders were serving on privateers.

The Browns also had an ironworks that produced cannons, selling them for 2,000 British pounds apiece.

Other families of note in New England who established fortunes in the privateering business included Andrew Cabot of Beverly, Mass. He and his brother John financed a ship captained by their brother George Cabot, who is the great-great-great grandfather of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., 1960 vice presidential candidate with Richard Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had defeated Lodge for senator from Massachusetts in 1952. Lodge was first elected in 1936, but had a two-year hiatus during World War II while he served in the Army. Lodge’s father defeated JFK’s grandfather for the Senate seat. Later Lodge Jr.’s son was defeated by Ted Kennedy in 1962. President Kennedy appointed Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963 and later President Lyndon B. Johnson extended his appointment through 1968. President Richard Nixon appointed him to head up the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam.

Gen. George Washington steered clear of the privateers and the growing wealth of New England merchants, but Patton noted that after the war he called sea power “the pivot upon which everything turned.” It supplied the American Army, it seriously damaged London merchants and helped to make the war unpopular in the British Parliament, especially after American privateers and Navy ships captured British vessels off the coast of Ireland and even in the English Channel.

Patriot Pirates is a quick read at 243 paperback pages. It provides a unique look at an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is mostly mentioned in passing, if at all in the popular books of the Revolutionary War, such as Benson Brobrick’s Angel in the Whirlwind and David McCullough’s 1776. Few books put so many of the pieces of New England’s anti-establishmentarianism mixed with its quest for wealth together with the ultimate success of the Revolutionary War.

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